By land, air, and sea, Alex Soto's journey to the octagon has been anything but ordinary. Motivated by the September 11th terrorist attacks, the Tijuana native and San Diego resident joined the U.S. Army at the age of 18. During his four-years of service, which included time in the 25th Infantry Division’s Long Range Surveillance Detachment, Soto began boxing and practicing jiu-jitsu using instructional videos while deployed in Afghanistan. Upon returning home, the skills he had learned while serving were put to good use, as his aspirations to become a diver eventually led him to the Naval Marine Mammal Program, where he currently trains dolphins for the Navy. Though this fulfilled one of his passions, working with animals, Soto had ignited another during those pastime training sessions overseas. With his mind fixed on being a fighter, Soto sought out a gym in Mexico, where he resumed training before making his way to the San Diego Combat Academy. After a short stint on the amateur circuit, he graduated to the professional ranks in 2009, picking up five consecutive victories and a Bantamweight title within his first year.
An impressive young talent, it didn't take long for the UFC to take notice of Soto, who has since extended his unbeaten streak to seven straight fights, four of which were finished in the opening-round. Called upon as a late replacement, Soto will step in against top prospect Michael McDonald at UFC 139 with less than two-weeks notice. Here's what he had to say about his opponent, making his UFC debut, and the growth of MMA in Mexico:
Ok Alex, so the last time we spoke with you, you were preparing for your first fight in Japan. Aside from fighting Seiji Akao to a draw, which from what I understand is like kissing your sister, what was the experience like for you?
The experiece was cool man, it was awesome. The Japanese people are very respectful and it was a great experience. Even though it came out a draw, which I thought I clearly won the fight, but that's not up to me to say I guess. But, it was great and I'm glad I did it. It was a very special achievement in my career so far.
You're stepping in to face Michael McDonald this Saturday at UFC 139 on less than two-weeks notice. Do you feel you've been able to squeeze in adequate preparation for this fight?
Yeah, actually, I was training for a fight against another Japanese guy, Masanori Kanehara, that was going to be at Featherweight. We were going to fight on November 19th, which happens to be the same day that UFC 139 is going to happen. So, I've been working out, doing some great conditioning stuff with my coaches, and we couldn't have been more ready for a fight with McDonald than we are right now.
And are you still training with Team Hurricane Awesome at the San Diego Combat Academy?
That's correct. Team Hurricane Awesome with my coach Manolo Hernandez.
Michael McDonald is a pretty highly regarded prospect in the Bantamweight division. What are your thoughts on him as an opponent and how do you feel you match up with him stylistically?
We match up just fine man. I think it's going to be fireworks in this fight. McDonald is a very professional kid, he's young, he's 20-years-old. For being as young as he is, he has a great head on his shoulders. He's a very worthy opponent. This guy is legit and he's in the UFC for a reason. I think it's going to be a great fight.
Now, typically, when a fighter is making their UFC debut, especially on short notice, there is often talk of "octagon jitters," but you seem to thrive on high pressure situations: your military background, jumping out of planes, deploying to Afghanistan, etc. Is it safe to say that nerves aren't likely to be an issue for you in this fight?
I mean, the nerves for a fight are always there, they're a need. Every fighter needs those. But, I'm taking this opportunity with open arms and I said yes the second they asked me about the fight. I'm prepared and ready to get it on. There's no better time than right now.
Speaking of short notice, you also received an unexpected invitation to try-out for TUF 14 earlier this year. You made it through to the interview portion, but ultimately didn't make the final cut. Were you offered an explanation as to why you weren't cast?
No, I wasn't actually, but everything happens for a reason, right? Now, it was almost like a blessing in disguise. You never know what's going to happen, you never know if the UFC is going to call or not. I never lost faith that I would eventually be in the UFC and the opportunity just presented itself. You've got to take your chance.
So, in hindsight, are you glad that things worked out the way they have, or would you still have preferred to be a part of the show?
Actually, the show has its pros, and that is to get exposure as a fighter and to develop a fan base, and not only that, but to be competitive in a really tough situation. But, it is what it is, luckily the UFC ended up calling just in time, right as I'm training for another fight, and it just happened. It's just a blessing.
You've spent half of your professional career training and competing in your hometown of Tijuana, Mexico. Obviously, boxing is the primary love among Mexican fight fans, but how far behind is MMA?
If you go back to when I first started fighting amateur, I would go and compete in Mexico, San Diego or up in Los Angeles - it was a bar fight. It was a ring inside a bar, and nobody had gloves, so it was like, "Ok, no gloves guys, you just have to punch each other in the face." I mean, it was a straight up brawl. That was in early 2009, and I became pro in late 2009. Since then, Mexico has exploded with the MMA scene. We now have a full loaded commission, a sanctioned commission from the boxing commission, the same guys, and it's regulated, we do drug-testing, it's become a huge success in Tijuana. Crowds of like 6,000 people come out and the dome that's there gets jammed, it's awesome. So, it has exploded a lot and I think there's still so much room for growth there because I think people still need to get educated on the sport. But, yea, it's doing great.
Do you believe it could one day reach the same level of popularity as boxing in Mexico?
I think we're still some ways from that, but it will eventually reach that level. The sport, you don't need to sell it, the sport sells itself, and the momentum it's carrying here in the United States, and the momentum it's carrying all over the world, it's catching on. It's a trickling effect, it's reaching the borders, and it's reaching into Central Mexico. I mean, every since I announced my fight in the UFC, I've gotten calls from Guadalajara, down in Central Mexico, from Mexico City, calling me to congratulate me and tell me how proud they are to know that there's a Mexican fighter going to fight in the UFC. So, it's definitely peeking it's head, it's definitely getting better.
You've got quite an interesting back story, which I very slightly scratched the surface on when discussing your military background. Are you still working with the Naval Marine Mammal Program as a dolphin trainer?
Yes, I'm still working with them, still doing that. It's a job that I love doing. Now I get to do both of my passions, which are working with animals and fighting mixed martial arts. It's awesome.
And what exactly does that entail? What are you actually training these dolphins to do for the Navy?
Well, I'm not the guy to talk about the Marine Mammal Program. I just do my job, and part of that is to take the best possible care that I can of the Naval Marine Mammal Program and their animals.
Ok, I see. If you tell me, you might have to kill me, right?
Nah - Well, kind of. (laughs)
Alright, moving on then. From what I understand, it's not just dolphins, you're an animal lover in general, correct?
Exactly. I've always wanted to work in the animal industry, and taking care of animals, it's just unique. It's a job with a lot of love involved, and luckily I get to do both.
So, if you had to choose just one animal that best describes your personality, which would it be?
Oh man, that's a good question! Let's see, I don't know - a monkey, I guess.
Care to elaborate?
Ahh, I knew you were going to say that! (laughs) Just because I'm all over the place. I'm very active and always doing things. Wherever my interest goes and whatever I want to do, I do. It's kind of like pursuing something that I want in life. I don't let anything get in the way, I just go for it.
Alright Alex, Michael McDonald recently said via Twitter, "The dude is a scrapper. I'm so tired of decisions. Not this time." Five of your six victories have come by stoppage, are you also predicting a finish in this one?
I think so too. I really believe I can finish this guy. He's been finished before, that's how his one loss came. I think it was a TKO, and I think that's exactly how it's going to happen in this fight.
On behalf of myself and the staff at LowKick.com, I would like to thank you for taking the time to speak with me, it's been a pleasure. Is there anything you would like to add or any sponsors you would like to mention?
I just want to thank everybody that's helped me get to the UFC, which is my coach, Manny Hernandez, and my training partners, you know who you guys are from the San Diego Combat Academy. Also, my management company, Lex McMahon, from Alchemist MMA Management. They've done a great job helping me out as much as they can to get me into the UFC. I got the call and this is my shot, so I would like to thank them too. And my wife, my wife Joy, who has always supported me throughout all of this.
Don't forget to tune in to watch Alex Soto vs. Michael McDonald LIVE Saturday night on SpikeTV at 8pm ET. Also, make sure you check out Alex's Official Facebook Page and follow him on Twitter @SotoMMA.